There’s an infuriating trend in superhero movies that has reached the end of its life and needs to be scrapped. In the 2010s, a light touch seemed fresh and fun, with tongue-in-cheek, tongue-in-cheek dialogue popularized by Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” that felt revolutionary and sarcastic, with performances by stars like Ryan Reynolds in “Deadpool” that were downright radical. . But a whiff of “Shazam!” sequel “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and you will find that this excessively jokey approach has passed its expiration date.
The DC movie is extremely irritating, plodding and annoying, and that’s due in no small part to star Zachary Levi’s utterly muddled performance as Shazam, the superhero alter ego of teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel). In “Shazam!” From 2019, also directed by David F. Sandberg, there was something quite charming about Levi’s childlike performance, a grown man playing Superman with all the wonder of a teenager. In the four years since, the gimmick has either gotten old, or Levi is just overreacting, adopting a vaguely urban accent, speech peppered with tired slang (“trippin'”), and an extra lecherous attitude.
The biggest problem with his acting is that he is completely out of step with his younger counterpart, which was also a problem in the first movie. Angel’s Billy is a more grounded, even anxious teenager, who worries about his large, multicultural foster family and his role in it as he ages. When Shazam becomes Shazam, thanks to magic bestowed on him by a withered wizard (Djimon Hounsou), the Levi version of Billy suddenly becomes bratty, arrogant, and loud-mouthed.
Levi’s performance may be the crown jewel of the silliness that swirls at the center of “Shazam! Fury of the Gods”, but the film that surrounds it doesn’t help. It’s ugly, loud, and poorly written (the screenplay is by Henry Gayden and “Fast & Furious” writer Chris Morgan), which is a shame, because director Sandberg has produced some reliably inspired genre gems, like “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation.” But “Fury of the Gods,” which features an almost ridiculously random cast (Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and Rachel Zegler play a trio of sister goddesses, the daughters of Atlas), is unbearable.
We know this movie is set in Philadelphia only because Shazam and his superhero friends have been dubbed “The Philly Duds,” and Liu’s Kalypso plants a golden apple sprouting mythological beasts in the middle of Citizens Bank Park, where the kids play. Philadelphia Phillies. A chyron reading of Wolf Blitzer, “Philadelphia Trapped Under a Weird Dome,” is the film’s only true laugh, unintentionally.
Despite these references, there’s no sense of place: the action mostly takes place during a strangely golden magic hour on top of the buildings, and there’s a portal to a green-screen nightmare mythical realm where the sister goddesses do their wicked business. Visually, it’s a mess, with CGI that looks like it’s straight out of a CW show. Everything is flat and framed in medium shots, without the dark cityscape aesthetic of the first film, which was in keeping with the spirit of modern mythology.
The youthful tone, the focus on a familiar story, and the painfully explained themes and lessons clearly indicate that this film is aimed at a younger audience. But just because this movie is for kids doesn’t mean it has to be that bad. It may be a poorly done Skittles ad masquerading as a superhero riff, but it’s Levi’s performance that sends him into the stratosphere of embarrassment. Here’s hoping this isn’t just Shazam’s last outing, but also the nail in the coffin for the fawning superhero.
Walsh is a film critic for Tribune News Service.
‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’
Classified: PG-13, for sequences of action and violence, and language
Execution time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: Starts March 17 in general release